Negative self-talk can have a devastating effect on anyone’s physical, mental and social well-being—but as a caregiver who’s already juggling more than your fair share of stress, it can also have compounding effects on your ability to take care of your loved one.
Which is why it’s so important for caregivers to stay on top of their thoughts and stop any self-criticism or catastrophizing before it takes root.
“We’re talking about using the same kind and gentle language and approaches that we do with the other people we love in our lives with ourselves,” Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, a licensed psychologist, told NPR. “Because we’re also people that we hopefully love, right?”
The effects of negative self-talk
Negative thoughts are a perfectly normal part of life – everyone has them – and each one of us will even have negative thoughts about ourselves from time to time. These thoughts aren’t necessarily bad, as recognizing you’re not happy with something can be motivation to change it—whether it’s a part of your life situation or an aspect of your own behavior. Still, if these thoughts become too common, they can be detrimental to your well-being, as psychologist Lauren Alexander, PhD, illustrated for the Cleveland Clinic:
“Harmful negative self-talk is when the dialogue in someone’s head is constantly negative, maybe more negative than it is positive.”
Constant self-criticism and catastrophizing can lead to:
- Increased depression and anxiety
- Heightened stress levels and eventual burnout
- Waning self-confidence
- Misunderstandings and strained relationships
- Intestinal distress and/or a change in appetite
- A lack of energy and focus
- More frequent illnesses
- Aches and pains from being stiff and tense all the time
- Alcohol or medication dependence and abuse (including sleeping pills)
Chronic stress – whether from negative self-talk or other factors – can also lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Negative self-talk can harm the one you love
Frequent negativity doesn’t just affect the person experiencing it; it spills over to others as well. That’s bad news for family caregivers whose ability to care for loved ones can suffer dramatically from the stress and inevitable burnout that come from constant negative self-talk. This can look like anything from a grumpy attitude and short temper that leaves your loved one feeling like a burden to actual abuse and neglect.
A major reason why this occurs is that constant negative thoughts and emotions make it easier for caregivers to neglect themselves. You’ll have a harder time prioritizing your own needs when your mind is telling you that you don’t matter or that you’re failing in your role.
You’ll have a harder time prioritizing your own needs when your mind is telling you that you don’t matter or that you’re failing.
Being able to provide the proper care for the senior in your life requires good health, but negative self-talk can get in the way of that. Indeed, an older adult’s well-being depends on your well-being, so it’s important not to jeopardize their physical, mental or emotional health by allowing a cycle of negativity to take over.
Be a better caregiver by eliminating negative self-talk
Health and Wellness Coach Julie Dobinski compares the need for self-compassion to putting one’s own oxygen mask on before helping others.
“This instruction can also be a metaphor for our own caregiving situation,” she wrote on Optimal You Coaching. “As we care for others, we also need to learn the important skill of being compassionate and caring toward ourselves in the process.”
By stopping negative self-talk, caregivers can reduce stress and increase focus—both of which will improve the quality of care provided. Other benefits include:
- Increased patience and attentiveness
- Less stress and negativity passed to your loved one
- Lower risk of abuse and neglect
- Fewer health issues that potentially interrupt care
Stop negative thoughts in their tracks
Now that you know how harmful negative self-talk is, how do you stop it? Dobinski recommends being aware of your thoughts and then countering the negatives with a more positive statement, such as, “I am making a difference.”
Super-positive self-talk may feel inauthentic and unbelievable if the negative stuff has already become well-entrenched. That’s why Alexander suggests starting out with neutral counters if necessary; what matters most is catching them in the act, she told the Cleveland Clinic:
“As you practice, you can start to transition into some more positive thinking. You can highlight some of your positive attributes, the things that you do right. And then, starting to sow a different style of thinking, slowly but surely. It certainly takes time.”
Other tips for putting an end to the negative voice in your head:
- Change the channel on your thoughts. Instead of thinking about yourself or your situation, focus on other things.
- Choose an affirmation that feels realistic. Bradford suggested: “I commit to loving myself a little bit more each day,” “I commit to doing my best each day” and “I’m better than I was.”
- Limit social media.
- Use the third person. After all, most of us would never speak to others the way we do to ourselves.
- Exercise, eat nutritious food and spend more time in nature.
- Try movement therapy to heal the mind through the body.